Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Mar 12, 2019

In a massive college admissions scandal, officials from the US attorney’s office, the FBI, and the IRS announced criminal charges against 50 individuals involved in a scam to improperly gain admittance for students from wealthy families to selective US universities through the submission of fraudulent SAT and ACT scores and the submission of false athletic qualifications.

At the center of the alleged illegal activity was William Rick Singer, who ran the Edge College & Career Network, and who has been cited for processing $25 million in fraudulent payments through his Key Worldwide Foundation between 2011 and 2018. A number of standardized test administrators and proctors, as well as college coaches have been implicated in the scandal.

Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik covers the story here.


The indictments include charges of conspiracies related to racketeering, wire fraud and more.

The charges involve coaches, parents and some who administered exams. Two prominent actresses -- Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin -- are among those charged.

The institutions involved include Georgetown, Stanford, Wake Forest and Yale Universities and the University of Southern California.

Federal authorities are only today releasing documents in the case, but the general pattern appears to be helping nonathletes gain the benefits of being admitted as athletes. At top colleges, being a recruited athlete can create an enormous advantage.

For example, one of those indicted today is John Vandemoer, who is Stanford's sailing coach, and was still listed on the team website as such as of noon Tuesday. He is charged as participating in a racketeering conspiracy with a business that provides help to those seeking college admission. The conspiracy, according to the indictment, was designed to enrich those involved, including the Stanford coaches.

According to the indictment, the various parties worked at "designating applicants as purported recruits for competitive college athletic teams, including the Stanford sailing team, without regard for the applicants' athletic abilities, in exchange for bribes" and engaged in "concealing the nature and source of the bribe payments."

In one case discussed in the indictment, $110,000 was paid to Stanford sailing accounts in return for a false designation that someone was outstanding at sailing.

The allegations also extend to cheating on the SAT and the ACT. According to the indictments, those involved in the conspiracy encouraged students they were being paid to help to file papers with ACT or the College Board saying that they had learning disabilities. When they received permission to take the test under special circumstances (typically with extra time), these applicants were told to use one of two testing centers that one of the defendants said he could "control." Those taking the tests were then told to come up with fake reasons, such as a family wedding, for needing to take the exam in one of these centers, which were far from their homes. Bribes were then allegedly given to have others take the tests.

In other cases, the federal documents say, a third party served as "a purported proctor for the exams while providing students with the correct answers, or to review and correct the students’ answers after they completed the exams."

The New York Times article covering the emerging scandal is excerpted below:


The case unveiled Tuesday was stunning in its breadth and audacity. It was the Justice Department’s largest ever college admissions prosecution, a sprawling investigation that involved 200 agents nationwide and resulted in charges against 50 people in six states.

The charges also underscored how college admissions have become so cutthroat and competitive that some have sought to break the rules. The authorities say the parents of some of the nation’s wealthiest and most privileged students sought to buy spots for their children at top universities, not only cheating the system, but potentially cheating other hard-working students out of a chance at a college education.

In many of the cases, prosecutors said, the students were often not aware that their parents were doctoring their test scores and lying to get them into school.

“The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew E. Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said Tuesday during a news conference. Mr. Lelling said that those parents used their wealth to create a separate and unfair admissions process for their children.

“This is an extreme, unsubtle and illegal example of the increasingly common practice of using money to get an edge in the race for a place in an elite university,” said Christopher Hunt, who runs College Essay Mentor, a consulting service for applicants. “The more common practice is to spend money in indirect ways: High-priced test prep. Coaches so your kid can be a recruited athlete. Donations as an alum. Donations as a non-alum.”

Parents paid Mr. Singer about $25 million from 2011 until February 2019 to bribe coaches and university administrators to designate their children as recruited athletes, which effectively ensured their admission, according to the indictment.

Mr. Singer is also accused of bribing Division 1 athletic coaches to tell admissions officers that they wanted certain students, even though the students did not have the necessary athletic credentials.

Most elite universities recruit student athletes and use different criteria to admit them, often with lower grades and standardized test scores than other students. Admissions officers typically set aside a number of spots in each freshman class for coaches to recruit students to their teams.

Masha Gessen has written an article in The New Yorker that uses the breaking college admissions scandal to provide an assessment of the hyper-competitive US higher education landscape:


There is an adage of journalism that holds that every story should be written as if by a foreign correspondent. I generally like this idea: coverage of many issues could benefit from a naïve but informed view. I now find myself imagining applying it to the college-scandal story.

I would, of course, begin by explaining that fifty people in six states are accused of conspiring to game the college-admissions system. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each to have other people take standardized tests in place of their children, to insure that the administration of the test itself would be fixed, and to bribe coaches and falsify their children’s athletic records. Here, the story would get complicated. A reader in any country can understand the concept of a standardized test—in some countries, in fact, standardized tests have been a tool to fight corruption in admissions. But what does athletic ability have to do with college, especially a college considered academically challenging?

Soon, I would find myself explaining the exotic customs of American college admissions. As the parent of two young adults—one recently went through the application process and the other is in its beginning stages—I have accumulated some experience explaining the system to my friends in other countries. (A Canadian academic’s recent incredulous response: “In Canada, people just go to university!”) I would have to explain the concept of legacy admissions: the positively pre-modern concept that the right to an élite education is heritable. I would have to explain that colleges depend heavily on financial donors, whom they cultivate through generations. I would have to explain the growing part of softer criteria like extracurriculars—the race to be not only better-educated than your peers but also better at being a good person in the world—as if education and an initiation into adult civic life were not what college itself is for. I would have to note that it’s essential for parents to be able to afford to pay for their children’s extracurriculars and sponsor their volunteerism.

I would have to explain all that before I even got to the standardized tests. Then I would note that an SAT/ACT tutor in New York City charges between three hundred and four hundred and fifty dollars an hour. I would note that, to make parents feel better about parting with that sort of money, many programs guarantee a precise bump in test scores for their students: about a hundred and eighty points, out of a possible total of sixteen hundred, for the SAT; about four, out of thirty-six, for the ACT. I would note that gaming the test legally is such a well-established practice that children whose parents can’t afford thousands of dollars in test-prep fees will score more than ten per cent lower than those who get tutored.

The lengthy indictment including wiretap transcripts and details of the alleged fraudulent activity can be viewed here in pdf form.

A shorter document relating the outline of the indictment is available here.

Video of a press conference regarding the indictment can be viewed on YouTube.